Voice of Catalonia

The Champions League win is just the mind tonic that Barcelona fans need to shrug off the INFERIORITY COMPLEX instilled by frequent unfavourable comparisons with Real Madrid's awesome European achievements of the past, writes N. U. ABILASH .

On the evening of May 17, the 20,000-plus travelling fans of FC Barcelona, assembled at the Stade de France in Paris to cheer their team in the Champions league final against Arsenal, found their collective identity. So did those back home in the Spanish autonomous province of Catalonia — of which Barcelona is the capital — anxiously watching the match on plasma screens in pubs, bars and the city centre.

Unbelievably, fans of the club never ceased using their most popular catchphrase — "avui patirem" in Catalan or "today we will suffer" — even when Ronaldinho, Deco, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi quantified sublime art under mundane heads such as goals, wins, and League triumphs over the last two seasons. Beginning next season, there is unlikely to be no more talk of impending suffering. Four glorious minutes in the heavy rain at the Stade de Paris, when first Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o equalised and then Brazilian Juliano Belletti scored the winner, is just the mind tonic the Catalans need to shrug off the inferiority complex instilled by frequent unfavourable comparisons with Real Madrid's awesome European Cup achievements.

Madrid's Continental conquests, spawning the legendary days of Alfredo de Stefano and Ferenc Puskas in the 1950s and the Galacticos age of the recent past, as opposed to Barcelona's solitary win in 1992 has been a huge burden in Catalan consciousness. Just as the oppressive rule of dictator Francisco Franco, a former Real Madrid patron, in Spain between 1939 and 1975 was.

Not anymore though. For the reigning European champions and holders of two consecutive La Liga titles are well on their way to becoming one of the all-time great club sides in history. Joining the likes of Real Madrid of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ajax of the early 1970s, AC Milan of the late 1980s and Real Madrid of the early part of the present decade. The combination of brilliant ball skills, imaginative passing, astoundingly quick positional interplay and astute organisational and tactical acumen in Barcelona is in such precise proportions that it would have given a complex to one of the city's famous former residents, Cubist master Pablo Picasso. With the nucleus of the same set of players unlikely to change in the next few years the sky is the limit for Rijkaard's team.

The Catalan team's brilliance in ball skills and passing took the breath away of even the committed Barcaphobe throughout the season — remember the standing ovation Ronaldinho received from a full-house at Real Madrid's home. On the last day of the season though, the display on the pitch in this department was only a bit clearer than the cloud-filled Parisian sky. However, the tactical nous of manager Frank Rijkaard — who is only the fifth person to win the coveted trophy as a player and manager — and the adaptability of the Dutchman's side prevailed on the historic night.

Rijkaard sprung a surprise before Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger when he started Ronaldinho on the centre and Eto'o on the left, thereby cleverly reversing the roles of the duo from that prevalent during the team's path to the final. As David Pleat had written in The Guardian on the eve of the final, Wenger's strategy had been to hem in Ronaldinho with a group of three or four Gunners so that Barcelona could be made to play through the middle and the right.

Rijkaard's shock tactics would not have worked if a set of individuals, who were rigid in their ways, were asked to fit in. The cornerstone of the Barcelona success story this season has been the constant shifting of positions by individuals within a formation, a strategy introduced in the early 1970s by the Ajax team inspired by Johan Cryuff, who, incidentally, managed Barcelona to its last European triumph in 1992. Even though Eto'o started on the left in the final, there were occasions when he quickly alternated with Ronaldinho; the Brazilian also rapidly interchanged with Deco and Mark van Bommel. Rijkaard's substitutions were telling; Henrik Larsson set up both the goals, Juliano Belletti scored the winner and Andres Iniesta pressed forward consistently looking for the equaliser.

Though Spanish central defender Carles Puyol is the club captain, Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto'o and the experienced Larsson have played significant leadership roles in Rijkaard's set-up without any trace of ego clashes. In stark contrast stands the cold war between the Raul camp and the Ronaldo camp in archrivals Real Madrid. This creative fusion in Team Barcelona, owned by 100,000 Catalan members, symbolises the cosmopolitanism associated with the city of Barcelona that comes from its achievements in the field of art and from the popular cultural struggle against Spanish hegemony flowing from Madrid.

Justin Webster, who has made a film on FC Barcelona, writes that the club is the cultural symbol of Catalonia. "In Barcelona, football is also political in a more basic, classical sense. As a stateless nation of seven million people, Catalonia needs symbols. FC Barcelona's matches appear as punctuation to a much longer-running story, linked to Catalonia's own struggles over its identity and status." However, in the club, where beauty and glory reside now, there inhabited chaos two years ago. In the summer of 2003, Joan Laporta, a 40-year-old lawyer leading a bunch of ambitious entrepreneurs and professionals, contested the presidential elections of a debt-ridden club with an agenda to bring in youth, transparency, professionalism and better fiscal management.

The victorious Laporta, along with his former Vice-President for Sports and Football Sandro Rossell, chose the young inexperienced Frank Rijkaard as coach, signed Ronaldinho after losing initial target David Beckham to Real, and started work on the club's GBP100m debt. The club which had finished in mid-table of the Spanish League under the previous dispensation, qualified for the 2004-05 Champions League, where it lost to Chelsea in a double-legged clash now infamous for the Anders Frisk incident.

A high-speed run on the right by an 18-year-old Argentine, considered by Diego Maradona as his natural successor, reduced Chelsea to 10 men in the home leg of the repeat clash this year, perhaps the most decisive moment of Barca's European triumph. Fitness permitting, Messi and Ronaldinho are certain to give nightmares to rival defences for the next couple of years.

That still leaves us with Eto'o and Deco. By the time the `famous four' end their partnership — Messi has a contract with the club till 2014 and the other three till 2010 — one or two more of Champions League silverware are bound to inflate Catalonian pride. Anyone still for "today we will suffer"?